Throughout the ages there have been various secret societies, going about their business and machinations in the darkness beyond the veil past the prying eye. Some of these are nefarious or sinister, others benign, and still others just flat out bizarre, but in every case they are ciphers that defy understanding. Back in the Gold Rush days of America there was supposedly one secret society of enterprising aviators well ahead of their time that was long lost to history, its records found by chance a century later. This is a tale of strange secret societies hiding in the shadows, a humble immigrant, fantastical flying machines from beyond the imagination, and UFOs. This is the story of the bizarre and enigmatic Sonora Aero Club.

In 1850, at the height of the Gold Rush era in the United States, a slight, unassuming man by the name of Charles August Albert Dellschau emigrated from his birthplace of Brandenburg, Prussia to Texas, where he worked as a humble butcher for some years. He would go on to marry and have three children, finding other odd jobs over the years such as a farmer, sales clerk, and working at a saddlery, and his life seemed mostly pretty normal, mundane even, until it quickly started to unravel in a saga of tragedy. In 1877, Dellschau’s wife and youngest son would die of yellow fever, and his second wife would die within a year as well, with one of his daughters thought to have passed away too. In his retirement years we would move in with his stepdaughter in Houston, Texas, after which he lost another child and his son-in-law to tuberculosis. It was during this tragic time that he would begin his hobby of painting and writing in his notebooks, spending hours locked away in the attic feverishly working on them all the way up until his death in 1923 at the age of 93, by which time he had amassed over 5,000 ink drawings and watercolor paintings, as well as hundreds of pages of journal entries. It would have been considered a relatively ordinary life, with no one really thinking much of his hobbies and his work forgotten, but this would all completely change many decades later when his work came to light by chance and it would be found that Delschau had been far from ordinary.

In the 1960s, the house in Houston where Dellschau had once lived caught fire and his descendants, who still owned the property, saved what they could. Among the various things pulled from the burned out home were 12 large scrapbooks by the late Dellschau, composed of over 2,000 double-sided pages of drawings, watercolor paintings, and collages all depicting an eclectic mix of all manner of fantastical airplanes, airships, and other aircraft the likes of something out of a fantasy story, all remarkably intact after the fire. Although it was all very interesting the family went to throw them away, still not realizing the significance of it all, and if it weren’t for an eagle eyed antiques and used furniture dealer by the name of Fred Washington they would have been once again lost to history. Washington saw the books and was so intrigued by their unique art style that he bought them from the trash collectors and took them home, where he promptly sort of stashed them away to collect dust under a pile of carpets.

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Dellschau illustration

It would not be until 1968 that they would take on a whole new strange light, when an art student named Mary Jane Victor stumbled across the book and acquired them, putting them on display and making them available to be studied. The paintings themselves were found to be of exquisite quality, impressive since the man who had painted them had been completely self-taught. In the illustrations were depicted scores of amazing and elaborate flying machines the likes of which the world had never seen at the time, which he refers to as “Aeros,” and which range from helicopter contraptions to strange dirigibles, great warships held aloft by balloons and other less definable flying oddities, all rendered in incredible detail complete with pilots and passengers. It was all so imaginative and otherworldly that they have often been described as like something coming from a Jules Verne novel. All of these fantastical illustrations were dated, numbered, and bound up along with news clippings or aeronautical inventions and disasters, various ink drawings, and scribblings of what appears to be a code that has never been fully deciphered, all rather sloppily and haphazardly bound together with shoelaces and thread. Amazingly, it was found that although there were thousands of these pictures this was only a fraction of the true number, the others presumably lost.

Just as amazing as the paintings and drawings themselves were the journals included with them, in which Dellschau chronicles in great detail a secret society of flight enthusiasts he calls the “Sonora Aero Club,” of which he claimed to be a member. The group is described as having around 60 members, possibly more, who would meet regularly in the isolated town of Sonora, California, to discuss new flight inventions and work on innovative designs for the amazing and improbable aircraft pictured in the illustrations and to even test them out in flight in the mountains and the nearby desert. In these weird writings, Dellschau portrays himself as more of a chronicler, illustrator, draftsman, and scribe for the group rather than an actual inventor, but his impressive paintings and drawings record them in striking detail, including all of the moving parts and mechanisms, far from mere fantasy images and conveying a sense that these designs could actually work, that the inventions were quite real.

And what inventions these were, as according to Dellschau they had managed to create navigable aircraft in a time before airplanes, with advanced motors and all manner of sophisticated aeronautical technology well before its time, and even an anti-gravity substance referred to as "Lifting Fluid” or also known as "supe" and "suppe," and also a revolutionary type of long-lasting anti-gravity fuel called “NB Gas.” According to him, the club went through great lengths to protect their secrecy, wearing disguises, having aliases, using codes, some of which are in Dellschau’s own notes, and hiding their designs well. Dellschau tells of the club’s adventures flying these machines over the California landscape and goes into some details about how some of them worked, displaying surprisingly advanced concepts for their time, and he explains that the club disbanded only when the creator of their anti-gravity fuel, Peter Mennis, died to take the secret formula to his grave. It is all rather bizarre to say the least, leaving one to wonder if this is a true personal account of real events and people or merely fictional musings and ramblings.

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Dellschau illustration

Critics point out that there is no evidence that Dellschau had ever lived in or ever even been to California, although this means little because there is not much evidence of his mysterious and obscure life at all to begin with. He was to the world at the time just a lowly butcher and by all accounts a grumpy old man, and so considering he was basically a nobody until a century later when his notebooks and sketchbooks were accidentally found, the record of his life is thin and biographical data scant, with long periods of time in his life that are unaccounted for and no living relatives to go to for more information. It is certainly possible he could have made trips out to Sonora or lived there for a time without records of it being available. Another criticism of the story is that there is absolutely no evidence that this mysterious group ever existed at all, although there have been found headstones in the Columbia Cemetery near Sonora that bear the names of some of the men that Dellschau claimed were prominent members. What this means, though, is anyone’s guess, as he could have just based his fantasy around real people and events.

Of course, there are plenty of those who believe that the accounts are very real to some extent or another. One reason is that the illustrations and notes are so accurate and realistic, displaying a very good understanding of aviation and aeronautics and concepts beyond what one would expect from an immigrant butcher, and all very advanced for its time even among scientists. Dellschau was describing wings, chemical reaction motors, rudders, revolving shear blades, flexible joints, and even retractable landing gear, all in an era where this might as well have been magic and in some cases years before the Wright brothers would make their historic flight. Did he pick up all of this knowledge from self-study, prediction, and following the trends of aviation inventions? Maybe, but then one has to wonder how he got these designs for not yet invented aircraft and then had them so lovingly rendered and accurate that they seem perfectly capable of flying right off of the page. There is also the fact that if the club did exist then they chose a perfect place to base it. The landscape outside of Sonora is flat, remote and rugged desert surrounded by mountains, well away from prying eyes and a good place to test out experimental aircraft, so their secrecy could have feasibly been maintained.

One more fringe idea is that people indeed did witness these experimental flying craft, and that they were the origin of a flap of bizarre UFO sightings in the area during the years the group was supposedly most active. UFO researcher Pete Navarro has spent many years studying Dellschau’s notebooks and for a time was even in possession of many, having purchased them for his research. He believes, as do many other UFOlogists out there, that the secretive activities of the Sonora Aero Club were responsible for a rash of sightings of unidentified objects in the region during just about when they were in their heyday. From between November 1896 and April 1897 there were thousands of reports from across a vast area of 18 states of what appeared to be some sort of strange, cigar-shaped airship that resembled a flying dirigible of some sort, about 30-feet long and in some cases described as having revolving wheels, rudders, motors, sails, and a powerful beam it could project in front of it or towards the ground. In some cases, the pilots of the vessel were seen and even heard talking, although it could never be made out what they were actually saying. Navarro believes that this craft or crafts could have been the Sonora Aero Club at work, and been mistaken for aliens from another planet, such was the outlandish quality of their highly advanced airborne contraptions.

Dellschau illustration

Navarro has even suggested that the code within the notebooks refers to this club as being part of an even larger secret society, and has claimed to have deciphered the entire code himself. Although he has not released the full translation of the text or the method of decoding it, Navarro has said that the notebooks refer to a secret society with the acronym “NYMZA,” although what this entails is unknown. Navarro has since sold off the remaining notebooks, and they have gone off to various galleries and private collectors, but he says that studying them and visiting the area of Sonora has convinced him more than ever that the story of the Sonora Aero Club was real, that these inventions were responsible for the 1896 and 97 mystery airship sightings, and that Dellschau was not merely just a delusional daydreaming loner.

It is all quite the fuel for the imagination, this secret club of renegade inventors building their fascinating machines to take flight over the rugged California mountains, bleak deserts, and beyond in an era before any of this was thought possible. Dellschau’s illustrations and notes bring to vivid life the whole tale, making it all feel completely real and plausible, regardless of whether any of it was or not. If this all was an elaborate work of fiction, then it was a master class in world building and detailed alternate history, and his drawings and paintings are still considered valuable and of great quality. We are left to ask was any of this real at all, and if so to what extent? Or was this just a genius' sprawling work of fiction melding with art? Whatever the case may be, it is a fascinating look at the legacy of a man whose work would have otherwise been entirely forgotten to time, and a tantalizing peek into a puzzle that may never be solved. Did the Sonora Aero Club ever really exist? It is impossible to know, but with their dreams of taking to the skies and pushing the boundaries of human limitations one certainly would like to think it did.

Brent Swancer

Brent Swancer is an author and crypto expert living in Japan. Biology, nature, and cryptozoology still remain Brent Swancer’s first intellectual loves. He's written articles for MU and Daily Grail and has been a guest on Coast to Coast AM and Binnal of America.

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